Behavioural Science is a rapidly expanding field and everyday new research is being developed in academia, tested and implemented by practitioners in financial organisation, development agencies, government ‘nudge’ units and more. This interview is part of a series interviewing prominent people in the field. And in today's interview the answers are provided by Paul Adams. Paul is currently a senior behavioural economist at the Autoriteit Financiele Markten (AFM) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, although when I met him, he was leading a multi-disciplinary team conducting research to improve consumer's financial decision making and using behavioural insights and intelligent design to improve organisational effectiveness and efficiency at the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in London. Although a practitioner, his work is often in collaboration with prominent academics, making his work an interesting collaboration of both rigour and applicability. Let's dive into his interesting perspective to my seven questions:
Who or what got you into Behavioural Science?
I’d love to have some great story about noticing some unique and bizarre financial decision making by some vulnerable group in society which I solved singlehandedly and tested in a well-powered pre-registered RCT that was later published in a top journal. But the truth is a little more mundane.
I’ve always been fascinated by economics, and I can trace that back to my high-school economics teacher William Goldsmith. To me economics was always a way of understanding the world at every level - from the smallest individual decisions right through to geo-political conflict and the development of nations. But I can put down my interest (and probably a large part of my knowledge) in behavioural economics to Stefan Hunt. I went through my Bachelors and Masters degrees in economics in the early 2000s and behavioural economics hadn’t really made it onto the syllabus (at least in the UK). So when I started work with Stefan I was a relative newbie. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the literature, his enthusiasm and his belief in what could be achieved by adding behavioural elements to economic models really inspired me.
What is the accomplishment you are proudest of as a Behavioural scientist?
Urgh. That is so difficult, especially when you’ve interviewed such accomplished members in the field like George Loewenstein and Cass Sunstein! We all know we see things in relative terms, so anything I can put forward might seem small in comparison, but I’m none the less proud of some of the work I’ve been involved with over the years. The single paper I’m most proud of is the field experiment we ran on credit card direct debit defaults (here). It was a great team within the FCA (Stefan Hunt, Benedict Guttman Kenney and Lucy Hayes), from academia (David Laibson and Neil Stewart) and of course from the collaborating firms. The results were both obvious (defaults matter) and surprising (but other behaviours nullify their effects) and I hope it’s added to our understanding of how to evaluate nudges. More generally, I’m really proud of the team we created at the FCA. It lives on even as many of the original founding members have moved into new roles.
If you weren’t a behavioural scientist, what would you be doing?
Probably just a regular economist with a confused look on my face.
How do you apply behavioural science in your personal life?
For a long time I didn’t. I was always falling into the intention-action gap. And I’m sure I still do. Frequently! I think getting around to doing this interview was probably a victim of my overconfidence and present bias! Where I do try to use it, it’s normally to create habits that I can stick to relatively easily and removing temptations from my immediate surroundings. I also try to use public commitment to bind my own behaviour.
With all your experience, what skills would you say are needed to be a behavioural scientist? Are there any recommendations you would make?
I think behavioural science is a relatively broad discipline. So to my mind I think different people can bring different skills and still be a successful behavioural scientist. My experience has been that it can be an inherently practical role - understanding people and contexts, developing interventions (that are feasible) and designing experiments are all very practical tasks and you’re going to have to get your hands dirty and think through problems as they go. So the engineer (Mankiw) and plumber (Duflo) analogies both seem relevant.
How do you think behavioural science will develop (in the next 10 years)?
I think you saw my talk at Warwick a couple of years ago, so I guess I’ll need to be consistent with that. And it’s basically the three Ds. Design, Data science and Data.
Design because I think we can all do a bit more to understand user experiences and design techniques to prototype interventions before going into a full blown field experiment. This is already happening but I think we can always do more.
Data science because I think there are lots of applications where data science can help us understand current decision making patterns (eg. this paper from Gathergood, Mahoney, Stewart and Weber) as well as understand the effects of our interventions on different types of individuals (for example Athey and Imbens, 2016).
And Data because it seems to me that there will be an increasing volume of data that scientists of all kinds (but behavioural scientists in particular) can and will use to understand human behaviour (for example the work of Mike Luca).
Which other behavioural scientists would you love to read an interview by?
I’d love to hear from any of the people I mentioned, although I’m not sure they’d all call themselves behavioural scientists or behavioural economists. And there are so many good practitioners and academics out there that it’s hard to name just a few. But I’ll try to name three to keep the chain going.
Sendhil Mullainathan would be great on interaction of behavioural science and data science.
I’ve always really liked the work of Ideas42, and so would great to hear from Katy Davis who works there on financial decision making.
And Owain Service would be great to hear from his many years of experience at BIT.
Thank you so much for these amazing answers Paul! I will make sure to reach out to all of those mentioned. Let's just hope 2020 has put them in a responsive mood :)
As I said before, this interview is part of a larger series which can also be found here on the blog. Make sure you don't miss any of those, nor any of the upcoming interviews! Keep your eye on Money on the Mind!